Political theater at its best

Published 8:16 pm Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The clock ticked late into the night as I watched the U.S. House of Representatives bring to at least some conclusion the debate over health care reform that has consumed our country for the past year.

Much like the political conventions of decades past, I knew the outcome but watched it play out just the same. The drama was political theater at its best and perhaps politics at its worst.

I spent the day seriously trying to listen to all sides as the total crept nearer to the magical number of 216. After a year of listening to both sides, I truly wanted to know the best direction for this country in the long run.

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I had long ago figured out that the passage of health care reform would be very expensive for me personally. My company will incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs related to the expansion of coverage despite the small business tax credits designed to deflect criticism.

However, I have hundreds of employees that do not have health care coverage. I care about them and am willing to do my part in financing the cost if I could just be convinced that we know what we are doing with this bill.

It was with that mindset, a sincere willingness to listen and hear everyone out one last time that I settled into bed with a semblance of an open mind about health care. The debate acted much like a sleeping pill as I struggled to stay awake, wanting just one crystal clear thought that I could hang my beliefs on.

First I was hit with the numbers put out by the Congressional Budget Office that by insuring 32 million additional people we could reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion in the next two decades. It seems that is awfully close to something for nothing.

I listened to various governors, including our own, complain about this being a federal mandate to the states, pushing costs down to the states without corresponding revenue. This was one of my pet peeves in local and state government. Despite promises to the contrary, it remains a favorite tool of politicians, especially in economically hard times.

I listened to the side debate about whether federal funding from this bill would be used to fund abortions. That seemed to me to be another issue used to distract true debate about health care and our need for reform. In the end, this was settled by an executive order that seemed to satisfy both sides of this issue just long enough for them to hold their noses and vote.

I thought back to the other great social debates of the last 75 years. Social Security has driven our country to the brink of bankruptcy numerous times. Only financial wizardry, a steady increase of the tax and the amount of income subject to that tax has kept us from facing that black hole head on.

Yet, the vote to approve Social Security was 77-6 in the Senate and 372-33 in the House. It was truly bi-partisan both in those that voted “yea” and those that voted “nay.”

In 1965, Medicare passed by another strong bi-partisan vote of 307-116 in the House. The Senate passed the measure by a vote of 70-24.

Today, the American public would not vote to suspend or reduce either of these two great social programs of our lifetime. To suggest such a move in Congress would be political suicide. And yet we march down the path toward financial ruin with the entitlements of these two programs leading the way.

Perhaps it was the leadership of those days that I was looking for in trying to make up my mind. Is it possible that there is nothing in the 2,000 plus pages of this legislation that could lead one single solitary Republican to cast their vote in favor of this health care reform legislation?

Is it possible that our own representative could withhold his own vote until the very end only to declare that he had decided to come out on the “side of the Angels”?

No, in the end what I saw was more of the same; politics as usual. You could hear the bones breaking all the way from Washington as arms were twisted from every angle. Not just on the winning side, but in both parties.

Now, just one day after the vote, we can hear the sound of new posturing in the media from the left and the right that will carry us through until Election Day.

I felt somewhat less than reassured when Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that many of the details were yet to be worked out. I knew that calm heads were not prevailing when a representative yelled “Baby Killer” as one of his colleagues was speaking.

The grin on Pelosi’s face as the count wound down, combined with the drawn face of her counterpart, Minority Leader John Boehner, made me think I was watching a sporting match with winners and losers.

There was no statesman who rose to make me feel secure about the passage of the health care bill. Yet, at the same time, I do not have the sense of dread that we have somehow passed a bill destined to bring the end of our republic. Indeed, health care stocks rose on Wall Street as the market gave its approval to the removal of uncertainty that has been so much a part of the debate.

That uncertainty about the long range results of this bill will remain for many years. I just hope I’ll still be in business when we finally figure out what those results will be.